In other blogs, I’ve written sentences that started with “He.” That’s ethical, but the pronoun “he” comes with new guidance these days. In Modern English, he is a singular, masculine, third-person pronoun. In most writing, as in most sentences, pronouns are not merely helpful, they are necessary. They make sentences smoother and clearer. But like money, politics, and religion, pronouns can hurt, demean, confuse, and get you outed.

The Writing Center at Lewis & Clark College gives helpful guidance. “Writing ethically begins with the understanding that language is not simply a passive tool for communication, but rather a normative practice, rooted in human conventions that actively shape our perceptions of the world. Rules of grammar and syntax are mostly, if not entirely, matters of convention, as are the meanings of words themselves, and there is nothing wrong with that – conventions are necessary for communication. But linguistic conventions can also age poorly, reflecting values that much of the world has abandoned. When this happens – as is clearly the case with certain gendered usages – writing ethically means thinking carefully about the conventions you wish to retain and those you would rather adapt or defy.”[1]

Like many ethical norms and writing rules, the gender-neutral convention is a matter of choice. You can adopt this convention in your own writing, adapt, or defy it.

Gender neutral or gender inclusive pronouns are unspecific to one gender. Twenty-first century social and political minds are adaptable. The votes are not yet in as to whether religion is adaptable. “We should use gender-neutral pronouns to avoid labeling a person we’re writing about with a specific gender. Some writing is neutral and therefore not offensive. But in some cases it is especially important if the people we’re writing about don’t identify with their assigned gender at birth. Physical sex does not determine gender. Genitals do not equal gender. Rather than assume someone’s pronouns based on their perceived gender or appearance, it’s crucial to ask or somehow define what their pronouns are.[2]

As is always the case, NPR has thoughtful guidance on using pronouns. “Respect is one of our core values. We aim to treat everyone we encounter ‘with decency and compassion.’ Accuracy is one of our core values. We work hard to make sure the facts we report are both correct and in context. When it comes to the pronoun we use to refer to someone, we need to keep both those values in mind. A pronoun is a biographical detail that has to be correct. Getting it wrong not only means we’ve made a mistake, it means we may have hurt the person we interviewed.”[3]

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab also offers guidance. “Linguistically, pronouns are words that refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role. They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press. Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style now notes that the singular they is common in informal communication (while acknowledging that it has yet to attain the same ubiquity in formal spaces).”[4]

If gender-neutral pronouns were left up to the writing community, there would be little debate and no animosity. But politics and religion always have some sway over how writers write. This headline stems from the constant intercession between good writing, good politics, and good God—“Pronouns Spur Fight Over Transgender, Religious Work Rights.”[5] Resisting using gender-neutral pronouns can get you disciplined. “Shawnee State University trustees and officials shouldn’t have to face free speech and related claims by an evangelical Christian professor who was disciplined for refusing to address a student by her self-asserted gender identity, a Southern District of Ohio magistrate judge recommended.”[6]

In May 2021, France said, Non Merci. “In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive. Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.”[7]

In June 2021, The Atlantic Magazine reported, “Today’s gender-neutral English-language pronouns make space not just for two genders, but for many more, serving as a way for people who fall outside the binary of “man” and “woman” to describe themselves. In recent years especially, they’ve become a staple of dating apps, college campuses, and email signatures. In 2020, a Trevor Project survey found that one in four LGBTQ youth uses pronouns other than he/him and she/her, and the American Dialect Society named the singular they its word of the decade.”[8]

Writers and readers are people. We come from different political perspectives, religious beliefs, cultures, colors, and parts of the country. Perhaps our most common trait is that we all use pronouns. They aren’t just tools for transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals. One ethical way to approach this issue is how we would like other people to refer to us without using our given names. The most common personal pronouns are she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs. Neo-pronouns, like ze/zim/zirs, and other methods of personal identification, like being referred to solely by a first name, are also rising in popularity. Choosing to vocally identify our personal pronouns can make a world of difference to those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals, making it appropriate and affirming workplace etiquette.[9] So write ethically and choose your pronouns with ethics on your mind and your keyboard.










Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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